The question I asked at the end of yesterday’s post stayed with me all night. I did a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ and I’d like to share with you the (temporary) results of my cogitation.
Ours is a culture that values originality above nearly everything else. That’s why we tend to give extra value to any work that breaks new ground, « pushes the envelope » or starts a new genre. That’s fine and I agree. Where we part ways however is that most people tend to think such a work is necessarily great, which is plainly not true. Historical importance and artistic greatness are two separate things that sometimes coincide and sometimes don’t.
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a prime example, and not just because of its racist content which has made it nearly impossible to assess the movie’s actual merits. On one side are those who think it historically important, no matter the heinous message it conveys, and should thus be part of the Canon, while on the other side are those for whom its racism cancels any potential artistic or historical value it might have, and even dispute its status as a milestone. Both sides have strong arguments to support their views, but share a similar premise – recognizing BOAN’s historical importance is to grant him « great movie » status. The problem is, BOAN is far from being that, and for other reasons than its ideological bent. Griffith’s inventiveness and mastery of the medium cannot be denied, but BOAN doesn’t exactly show him at his best as far as storytelling and directing actors go. The movie even if it came up with a NAACP recommendation would still be way too long, arrythmic and often boring, and the acting wildly unequal to put it charitably. Some of the most offensive scenes are so silly and badly staged as to be laughable. Had it not featured some revolutionary camera and editing work, BOAN would probably have fallen into oblivion as it clearly is not on a par with its contemporaries Cabiria or Les Vampires, the latter also being considerably more fun to watch. Griffith himself had previously done and would later do much better movies but none of them as historically important as BOAN and thus less famous.
A close equivalent in the crime fiction field is Carroll John Daly‘s Race Williams stories. While some historians and critics try to dismiss him in favour of the much more presentable Dashiell Hammett as the progenitor of the hardboiled school, the fact is that Daly shot first if only by a few months. Anyone interested in the subgenre, even in a purely academic fashion, has to read Daly for that reason – and for that reason alone as he was a terrible writer and his stories, well, suck. There is a tendency nowadays to romanticize the pulps and thinking of them of a fountain of great and innovative writing, but close examination tends to prove they were indeed a fountain – of utter mediocrity. That most of the people who « wrote » for them never made it to the slicks is not the mere result of the latter’s elitism. Of course many a great writer had its start in the pulps but they were neither the most representative or even the most popular – Daly and its Weird Tales colleague Seabury Quinn always edged out Hammett and Lovecraft in reader’s polls. Badly written, crudely plotted and ideologically nasty to boot, the Race Williams stories are no good as fiction, but they are inescapable as history.
Of course there are milestones that are also good in their own right – they may even be the majority, from Don Quixote to Citizen Kane, but their artistry, not their inventiveness, is what makes them stand out in the end. CK for instance would be a great movie even if Welles hadn’t invented anything; the acting, the writing and the direction speak for themselves. We don’t need repeating to ourselves « It’s a milestone, it’s a milestone » to get through it and neither Welles or his movie have anything to apologize for.
We must recognize innovation and originality when we see them, and give them the place they deserve in our canons – but we should never conflate them with talent and artistry as we risk first to ignore remarkable works that are not « groundbreaking » enough and second to elevate edgy but mediocre stuff well above its actual merit.